Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 13:41 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 13:41 | SYDNEY

Small wars and big choices


Graeme Dobell

6 November 2009 11:13

Australia needs to worry a little less about the small problems it has with big wars, and address some of the big problems that it has with small wars.

Don't judge a book by its cover but by its opening sentence. On that measure, Mark O'Neill's 'Confronting the Hydra' is a winner. It is an excellent contribution to the Army's argument that it is short-changed by Australian strategic orthodoxy: we keep planning for 'conventional' interstate war, but keep sending our troops to 'unconventional' intrastate conflict.

As Mark outlines the conundrum:

Australia’s commitments to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are the latest in a lengthy record of national engagements with counterinsurgency. Yet Australian strategic policies, doctrines, force structures and security culture have remained largely rooted in a paradigm of ‘conventional’ wars.

In launching the book, the former chief of Army, Peter Leahy, set out the Army frustration that 'Australia's strategic policy community has been unduly focused on the least likely fight'.

Afghanistan and Iraq are the headline issues in this argument. But the deeper question that throbs through Mark's work is what it means for how Australia should confront tough times in its own region. I've written before about Australia's Arc because that term shows the true ownership of what is sometimes called the Arc of Instability or Melanesian Arc.

The issues of the Arc came through in Leahy's remark that Australia's future might not be as the junior partner in a counterinsurgency (COIN) far away. Instead, Australia should get ready 'for the spin of a COIN in the Pacific region.'

The dollar signs tell the same story. Mark offers this accounting for Australian defence and aid spending in four conflicts in the decade from 1999-2009: East Timor $4574 million; Solomon Islands $1188 million; Afghanistan $2169 million; Iraq $2429 million. So Australia has spent more in its own Arc than in the big alliance commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The price tag of more than a billion and counting in the Solomons is a reminder of an earlier, cheaper choice that Canberra wimped. Back in 2000, Honiara asked for 25 to 50 Australian police officers to get on top of the mounting civil crisis. Canberra said 'no', worrying about the cost of the commitment and the lack of an exit strategy. When Australia and the rest of the Pacific Forum were forced to act with RAMSI in 2003, that previous police option looked like a huge opportunity missed.

Leahy laments that Australia still does not have a 'culture of deployment' beyond the military: 'It may not be a job for a soldier, but only a soldier is available to do it.' Mark attacks this culture with his call for the development of a whole-of-government counterinsurgency doctrine and his recommendation for greater use of the Australian Federal Police's International Deployment Group (IDG).

One of the easiest (but seldom used) arguments for AusAID and now the IDG is that they are more than the soft arm of defence — they are far cheaper. If Australia builds a greater COIN into its military thinking, that should help keep a focus on the problems of Australia's Arc — and how much cheaper it is to use the soft rather than the hard arms of defence.